The D.C. Shotgun Stalker

Samuel Sullivan

In 1993, James Swann heard voices in his head that told him to kill.

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From February 23rd to April 19th, 1993, the streets of two D.C. neighborhoods were terrorized by an indiscriminate shooter, who drove up to pedestrians, aimed his 20-gauge shotgun at their heads, and fired. During the two-month drive-by shooting spree James Edward Swann, Jr. stalked fourteen victims. Six avoided being shot, five were critically injured, and four lost their lives. On the day of his fourth and final murder, he was caught by chance. Swann experienced delusions and hallucinations that drove him to kill. He was found not guilty of his crimes by reason of insanity.

“The entire neighborhoods were in fear. People didn’t want to walk the streets. Kids didn’t even want to sell dope out here. Everybody was gone.” — D.C. citizen interviewed for Dan Marks’ Point Blank documentary.

The Rampage Begins: The Killing of Jack Bryant

On February 23rd, 1993, a 22-year-old young man was walking in D.C's Columbia Heights region. A driver in a blue Toyota Tercel pulled up to him and shot him with a shotgun. A Washington Post article by Serge Kovaleski explains that the young man survived the attack but suffered severe injuries to his arm and head. He was rendered partially blind from the attack.

Three days later, on February 26th, a masked man walked into a Columbia Heights Safeway barbershop and fired two rounds of his shotgun. According to a Washington Post article by Avis Thomas-Lester, the first blast killed 58-year-old Julius “Jack” Bryant, striking him in the head as he sat in a barber chair. The second struck a 68-year-old man injuring him.

The shootings in the barbershop were not initially linked to the Shotgun Stalker. Another man was arrested and later released for the crime. Police then used forensic evidence from the shotgun shell casings to tie the shootings to Swann. The barbershop shootings were outside of what would become the Shotgun Stalkers modus operandi. At the time, Swann was just getting started on his killing spree.

Linking the Shootings: The Killing of Bessie Hutson

Point Blank, a documentary by Dan Marks, recounted the night of March 23rd, 1993, when 28–year-old Elizabeth “Bessie” Hutson was murdered. It was a dark and rainy night in the D.C. neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant, and Bessie was walking her dogs. She was wearing a bright yellow raincoat. As she walked down an alley, Swann pulled up to her and shot her in the head with a shotgun. She died at the scene, face down in the alley.

Another victim, Lorrinda Arrington, was interviewed in Point Blank. On the night of April 4th, she was walking near home in north Columbia Heights. She saw a car driving slowly down the street with the headlights off. She thought nothing of it, perhaps someone waiting to pick someone up. She began crossing the street, and the car pulled beside her. The man in the car said, “Remember me?” The man stalking Lorrinda had a white cap on and a deadly serious look on his face. She said, “I don’t know you.” She was still confused as the man aimed a shotgun at her head and pulled the trigger.

Her reflexes saved her life. As the shotgun fired, she shielded her face with her right arm. Her arm absorbed most of the blow, and only a few pellets ended up in her neck. Lorrinda’s arm was in awful shape. Her elbow was beyond repair and had to be removed. Her luck continued as doctors could save the rest of her arm using a series of screws to hold the bones together.

Lorrinda was five months pregnant at the time of the shooting. Her baby was unharmed. She said, “I was glad I got to hold my baby with both arms.”

No Pattern Emerges: The Killing of Edwin Fleming

The police recognized they had a problem and set up a special unit focused on the case. Bill Richie, Chief of Detectives for Metropolitan Police Department at the time, led the investigation. In a 2013 video posted on YouTube, he said the investigation had tremendous resources from the FBI, ATF, DEA, United States Marshalls, and United States Attorney’s office.” The police offered a $10,000 reward but didn’t receive any promising leads.

According to a Washington Post article by Serge Kovaleski, after midnight on April 10th, the Shotgun Stalker struck again. After two unsuccessful attempts to kill a third victim, Swann saw Edwin Fleming returning from a night out. He pulled up to him in his blue Tercel, leveled his shotgun, and fired a fatal shot. The police were baffled by the unpredictable Shotgun Stalker, and his random shootings continued.

A Lucky Arrest: The Killing of Nello Hughes

On April 19th, 1993, police officer Kenneth Stewart was taking a drive through Columbia Heights on his day off. In Point Blank, Officer Stewart said that he saw a car run a red light. After the light turned green, he pulled behind the driver. It was around 1:00 pm.

It was at that point that it struck him that the car in front of him was a blue Toyota Tercel and matched the Shotgun Stalker’s vehicle's description. The Tercel turned into a parking lot, and officer Stewart, who was armed but in plain clothes, saw a police officer ahead of him at a street light. He pulled up to the officer and said, “Hey, look, I think we got the Shotgun Stalker. Can you come back me up?”

Officer Stewart turned his vehicle around and saw the Tercel starting to back out of the parking lot. Stewart blocked the Tercel with his car and got out with his weapon. He told Swann to lay on the ground and that he was arresting him for his traffic violation. When he put the handcuffs on Swann, he said, “You know this is not for traffic.” When Swann asked him what it was for, Stewart did not respond.

The other officer checked the Tercel and found a shotgun in the backseat. The officer told Stewart that he found the shotgun and, “the barrel is warm.” What officer Stewart didn’t know at the time was the Shotgun Stalker had just killed his fourth victim. Swann had fired three shotgun shots from his car that day. The first two had missed their targets, but the third struck and killed 61-year-old Nello Hughes.

Not Guilty

The hunt for the Washington D.C. Shotgun Stalker came to an end on April 19th, but some shocking revelations were revealed in the case. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Friedman, who was interviewed in Point Blank, the evidence showed that Swann was not living in D.C. when the murders took place. During the two-month killing spree, Swann had spent time living in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

Eight psychiatrists interviewed Swann before his trial. In the footage seen in Point Blank, Swann explains what drove him to kill. Swann said, “I hear voices, I talk to the powers of creation. I see angels, evil spirits, demons.” When asked if the voices were currently telling him anything, Swann responded, “They’re not telling me to do anything now. They know I’m in a lot of trouble.”

One psychiatrist, Park Dietz, explained in Point Blank what drove Swann to kill. The forces or spirits that Swann thought were in his body included Malcolm X, the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1965. Swann was convinced that Malcolm X and the other spirits insisted that he go to certain neighborhoods in Northwest Washington D.C. to kill “civil rights people.” If Swann didn’t comply with the spirits, they would pierce his heart and brain and cause him to die painfully.”

When asked if the spirits cared who he killed, Swann said, “The spirits just wanted me to kill someone. They said, ‘Just don’t leave out without killing someone or else we won’t leave you alone.’”

All eight psychiatrists testified that Swann was a paranoid schizophrenic. He was deemed legally insane at the time of the shootings because, based on his psychology, he was not in control of his decision to kill. The prosecution decided to concede his insanity defense. Therefore, James Edward Swann, Jr. was found not guilty of his crimes by reason of insanity. He was committed to Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Southeast D.C.

According to an NBC Washington article, he can apply for release every six months, but his only attempt to do so came in 2011, and it was denied. He applied for a 12-hour release for his father’s birthday. Swann remains committed to the hospital to this day and is currently in his mid-50s.

History of Mental Health 

Swann exhibited troubling behaviors from an early age. As detailed in an NBC Washington article, another psychiatrist who examined Swann, Dr. Raymond Patterson, said that at 8-years-old he was abusing alcohol. Swann would also beat dogs and, at one point, threw a cat off the roof of a building. He would sometimes go to the park and picnic alone, and he would chirp at birds as if he could talk to birds.

According to a Washington Post article by Paul Duggan, his years in school were uneventful. He had poor grades but was an athlete through high school. In 1987 Swann joined the Navy with the job of operating and maintain boilers on a ship. He was denied even routine promotions and, in 1990, after three years, was discharged at the military’s second-lowest pay grade.

The article also describes how in the years leading up to the Shotgun Stalker shootings, Swann had struggled to hold down a job. He had been hired and fired by two different security guard companies. Interestingly, on February 6th, 1993, a Prince Georges County police officer questioned Swann and seized his shotgun. On February 11th, because no files were charged against Swann, the shotgun was returned to him. This was less than two weeks before the first murder.

Conclusions

The Shotgun Stalker still haunts the survivors and families of the victims. Swann was 29-years-old when he committed his crimes. He had shown signs of mental illness for many years. He was overlooked by society. He was fired from work, able to purchase a gun, and his mental illness grew to a point until it drove him to kill. He did not receive the proper treatment for his mental illness, which could have prevented the killings.

The voices in Swann’s head explain a lot about the case. It explains why he traveled long distances and targeted Columbia Heights and Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. The voices also explain the diversity of Swann's victims. The Shotgun Stalker did not discriminate along the lines of age, gender, or ethnicity; he killed to silence the voices in his head.

The pattern of how the voices manifested accounts for the frequency of Swann’s killings. They built up over time, explaining the breaks between the shootings. The voices in his head were satisfied for a time after each kill. The voices also explain Swann's persistence to pursue new victims until he killed or thought he killed someone. 

If a stroke of luck by an off duty officer had not led to the arrest of James Edward Swann, Jr., there is no telling how many more victims Washington D.C.’s Shotgun Stalker would have had or how long his reign of terror would have lasted.

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